Origins and Development of the Novel Before 1740 Analysis


The English-speaking world has long considered 1740, the year in which Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded was published, pivotal in the development of the novel, a broad term that, for several centuries, has been applied to many different forms of long fiction. Richardson’s first novel remains a convenient landmark in the history of the form because, at least in England, it went further than any previous work in exploring an individual character’s “sensibility,” that wonderful mix of perception, culture, logic, sentiment, passion, and myriad other traits that define a person’s individuality. Pamela has been called the first intellectual novel, that subgenre in which most of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries worked.

Nevertheless, while 1740 is an important date in the development of one type of novel, to see all earlier novels as primitive ancestors of Pamela would distort the history of this multifarious form. The novel followed substantially different lines of development in Spain, France, and England, three countries notable for their contributions to the early growth of this form in Europe. Moreover, different types of novels exist side by side in every period, each type appealing to a different taste, much as different types of the novel flourish today. Finally, certain earlier works have exerted as profound and lasting an influence on the novel in Europe as that attributed to Pamela.

The massive, one-thousand-page Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) appeared in Japan hundreds of years before the genre developed in the West. The Tale of Genji was an immediate success in Japan, and celebrations in the year 2008 marked the one thousandth year since the first recorded mention of the novel appeared in 1008. The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady-in-waiting to the empress, and the story describes courtly, not common, life. Because there was virtually no contact between Japan and Europe at the time, this first great novel in the history of world literature came to have little influence on the Western novel. Unlike in Japan, the woman novelist would not emerge in the West for another seven hundred years; women’s contributions to the Western novel emerged alongside those of men, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The sixteenth century

It could be argued that Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485; the death of Arthur) marks the beginning of the English novel, followed closely by Sir Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551). Scholars of the genre, however, have usually excluded these works. Le Morte d’Arthur, somewhat inaccurately titled, is an English translation of selected and condensed romances from the French. The plot is rambling and unfocused, unlike the novel as a form. Utopia is a much more unified work of prose, but it is composed in Latin and therefore technically, and literally, not a work of English literature.

Whereas the French novel underwent constant refinement during the century and a half preceding 1740, with French writers producing masterpieces at intervals throughout the period, the English novel flowered briefly before 1600 and then lay dormant for more than a century until it was revitalized by Daniel Defoe. The seventeenth century in England produced but one work of genius in the form, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), a novel ignored by Bunyan’s contemporaries in literary society because of its style and theme.

Although overshadowed by the unsurpassed drama of the Elizabethans, the 1580’s and 1590’s saw an outpouring of original fictional narratives, including one voluminous work and a host of shorter works in the pastoral and satiric modes. Like the French one decade later, English writers were heavily influenced by translations of the late Greek romances as well as by the satires of the humanists, the pastorals of Jacopo Sannazaro and Jorge de Montemayor, and the tragic love novelle of Matteo Bandello. Other influential sources were the manuals of courtly behavior and noble ethics written by the Italians Baldassare Castiglione (Il libro del cortegiano, 1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561) and Stefano Guazzo (La civil conversazione (1574; Civil Conversation, 1581-1586). These inspired similar guides in England and provided a format of learned discourse imitated by writers of fiction.

The most distinctive feature of the English novels of that time is their commitment to moral improvement of the individual and of the state as a whole. Since, with the exception of Sir Philip Sidney, the principal novelists of that time were sons of the middle class, much of their writing was suffused with middle-class values: hard work, thrift, cautious ambition. As the period advanced, fictional works became more overtly addressed to the middle class, with more middle-class characters taking principal roles. In the 1580’s, this bourgeois appeal typically took the form of the romance intended to instruct the upwardly mobile reader in courtly ways; later, satire held sway, a satire moved by the spirit of reform rather than by the resigned contempt of the Spanish picaresques.

The most influential fiction early in this period was John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578), actually less a novel than a moral handbook for wealthy, budding scholars. In it, bright young Euphues exchanges academic arguments with wise old Eubolus on the issue of worldly experience versus the codified wisdom of the ages. Euphues fails to heed Eubolus’s sage advice and decides to taste the world, only to become the emotional captive of Lucilla, a courtesan who strips him of his money and his dignity. A chastened Euphues vows to spend the rest of his life contemplating philosophy and warning the young. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit was a continuing hit with a wide audience, and Lyly’s peculiar style established a fashion that persisted for a decade. Called euphuism, this style features the culling of exotic lore from the pseudohistories of the ancients, primarily the Roman scholar Pliny. In euphuistic argumentation, these strange bits are used as evidence for or against certain courses of action. That euphuism succeeded where other linguistic experiments such as marivaudage failed shows the hunger of Lyly’s audience for a mode of discourse that would make them appear learned.

Lyly’s most enthusiastic follower, Robert Greene, was a highly original novelist in his own right who composed an amazing variety of euphuistic romances between 1580 and 1587. In Greene works such as Mamillia: A Mirror or Looking Glass for the Ladies of England (1583, 1593), The Mirror of Modesty (1584), Morando: The Tritameron of Love (1584, 1587), and Euphues, His Censure to Philautus (1587), one can see clearly the amalgamation of sources—Italian novelle, the Bible, Castiglione, Greek epic—in Elizabethan fiction. Unlike Lyly, however, Greene brings to these romances a spirit of comic realism that invests his characters with greater fullness and sympathy than Lyly’s characters demonstrate. Greene’s later romances (such as Menaphon, 1589, and Greene’s Never Too Late, 1590) reject euphuism in favor of a more colloquial conversational style better suited to his more realistic characters.

When Greene turned away from Lyly in 1588, he was responding to the new fashion for pastoral love stories established by Sidney’s huge romance, Arcadia, which had been circulating in manuscript since 1580 but was not published until 1590 (revised in 1593 and 1598). Arcadia, an aristocratic work similar to Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée (1607-1628, 1925; Astrea, 1657-1658), shows the blending of the Greek...

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The seventeenth century

Because satiric fiction of the next decades returned to the pattern and subject matter of the connycatching works, prose writers who followed Nashe perhaps found his brilliance inimitable. The best of these writers, Thomas Dekker, presented collections of jests and stories carefully describing the shifts of London thieves and beggars in his The Bellman of London (1608) and Lanthorn and Candlelight (1608, 1609; revised as O per se O, 1612; Villanies Discovered, 1616, 1620; English Villanies, 1632, 1638, 1648), both heavy-handed condemnations of the outlaws from the perspective of the outraged citizen demanding protection. Dekker achieves neither Greene’s sympathy nor Nashe’s worldly-wise cynicism. Because his works create no real characters, they cannot really be called novels.

Just as the French religious wars of the sixteenth century precluded the growth of the novel in France, so the strides in English fiction taken during the Elizabethan years were halted during the seventeenth century as the economy worsened and religious tensions increased. Though novel readers continued to demand reprints of Elizabethan fictions, no significant works in this genre were produced in England until well after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The appetite for novels during the first two-thirds of the century was satisfied by translations of contemporary French works, with Honoré d’Urfé’s Astrea and the heroic novels of Madeleine de Scudéry enjoying great popularity. Ironically, when the century did produce a great English novelist, John Bunyan, he was ignored by the readers of French novels because of his allegorical method and his Puritan views.

Bunyan’s masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was partly written during his second imprisonment for unauthorized preaching. This occurred some six years after his first imprisonment (1660-1672), during which he had written his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), an intensely moving study reminiscent of Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400; Confessions, 1620). It would be misleading to say that The Pilgrim’s...

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The early eighteenth century

Behn’s popularity occasioned many imitators. In competition with them were the writers of sensational accounts of authentic voyages to exotic places. Both forms appealed to the taste, present in every age, for examples of individual survival or death in the midst of calamitous events. It was to suit this taste that the most famous adventure novel of modern times, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), was written. Drawing on numerous accounts of travelers’ shipwrecks, isolation, and survival, Defoe created a study of the individual in collision with environment that surpassed in realism any previous English fiction, except perhaps The Pilgrim’s Progress. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and The...

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